2011 - %3, April

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 21, 2011

Thu Apr. 21, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Pvt. 2nd Class Jeff Frizzell, cannoneer, and U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Sullivan, gunner, conduct a proficiency drill demonstration with fellow members of the A-3/321 Field Artillery Regiment Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Salerno. The soldiers performed the drill with a M777A2 howitzer while being observed by U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, senior enlisted leader, International Security Assistance Force/U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. Photo via US Army.

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How Much Do You Multitask?

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 1:42 AM EDT

After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I'm curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?

The reason I'm curious is because I feel like I'm sort of on the extreme non-multitasking end of the spectrum. I'm as good as the next guy at juggling a long task list (at least, I was back when I had a job where I had a long task list), but that didn't mean I multitasked. I was just fairly diligent about spending time on things I had to get done. And of course, I fiddle around checking email or looking at my Twitter feed as much as anyone.

But I can't multitask at all. For example, I can't listen to music and write at the same time. It's too distracting. I don't comment on TV news much because I don't watch TV news. Partly that's because TV news rots your brain, but mostly it's because I can't write while the TV is on in the background. Too distracting. And when I write long form pieces for the magazine, I work on them almost exclusively on weekends. I just can't task switch effectively between blogging and article writing during the day.

Of course, this is only true for cognitive tasks. Like anyone, I can work out and watch TV at the same time, or carry on a conversation while I'm cooking dinner. That's multitasking, I guess, but it's not really cognitive multitasking.

So what about you? What kinds of things do you feel like you can multitask? What kinds of things demand quiet time? And how confident are you that when you multitask, you're doing it effectively?

The Semantics of Taxes

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 10:22 PM EDT

Solving our long-term deficit problem will require both spending restraint (mainly in healthcare) as well as tax hikes. I've suggested a couple of times this week that in addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the tax part of this will amount to an additional 5-6% of GDP over the next couple of decades, which I've described as moderate. Megan McArdle says it's anything but:

A tax hike of 5-6% of GDP doesn't sound like much. But that's a big tax hike if your baseline is 19% — it means that everyone's taxes go up by about a third....These aren't little adjustments. They're huge changes in the overall tax burden, and they will have big effects on peoples lives, and the economy.

This is an example of how our choice of language has a huge impact on how we think about taxes. Raising taxes by a third really does sound like a lot. But let's take a look at what that really means.

Page 65 of this CBO document provides estimates for how much income tax various people pay. The median family gets dinged for 3% of its income. A one-third increase means their income taxes would go up by....1% of their income. That's not so much.

How about a family with twice the median income? That is, someone who's pretty well off. They pay 13% of their income. A one-third increase means their taxes would go by 4% of their income. Again, this is far from catastrophic, especially since we're talking about an increase phasing in over the course of many years.

Are these numbers the right ones? I don't know. It all depends on what happens to spending and on how we decide to allocate the burden of higher taxes. If payroll taxes go up, it might hit the middle class a little harder. If we choose to increase capital gains taxes or institute a financial transaction tax, it would hurt them less. Or maybe we'll choose a consumption tax or a carbon tax instead. Who knows? Still, it's likely that more than three-quarters of all taxpayers would end up paying no more than an additional 5% of their income in taxes. That's not painless, and no one will enjoy it. But over the course of a decade or two it's just not a "huge change."

Rites of Passage: Scarred for Life

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 7:27 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

With a dangerous reputation, crocodiles would not be the first animal you would associate with mental and physical strengthening. Surprisingly, the people of Papau New Guinea have a connection between man and beast that marks a boy's journey into adulthood.

Many traditional celebrations that accompany events like birth, the start of adolescence, marriage, and death are richly integrated with the use of natural materials; such as feather, skin and bone. But when an occasion as serious and important as the coming of age beckons, the rituals connection between cause and effect must reflect this intensity.

 

Many inhabitants of the South Pacific islands practice some form of physical transformation during male adolescence. The sacred act of scarring which people of the Solomon Islands practice can make rituals such as ceremonial hair cutting, and being cast into the wilderness for a short period, seem relatively less challenging.

For decades, tribes have used the tradition of scarification to mature their young boys into men. For a number of weeks, the boys psychological as well as physical barriers are pushed with consistent verbal taunts as well as public humiliations. However their discipline is yet to be tested to its breaking point.

In the video below you will see how the South Pacific filming team caught this incredible ceremony in high definition.

America's Debt Crisis Suddenly Disappears

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 6:44 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

Investors again demonstrated the power of positive thinking on Wednesday, driving U.S. stocks near three-year highs....After a shaky start to the week, when Standard & Poor's issued a warning on the U.S. credit rating, stocks have rebounded. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 186.79 points, or 1.52%, to finish at 12453.54, its highest close in nearly three years.

That was quick! It took a grand total of two days for investors to decide that America is in great shape after all.

So here's the thing: if you had a substantive theory1 about why S&P's announcement on Monday cratered the stock market — any theory at all — it was wrong. It doesn't matter if your causal mechanism was related to treasury rates, our broken political system, the value of the dollar, the price of gold, investor fear of company earnings, or anything else. It was wrong.

Either that or it was right for seven hours on Monday and then produced the precise opposite reaction two days later, even though nothing about America's financial condition has changed. But if you think that's the case, now you have to explain that. Good luck.

1As opposed to a nonsubstantive theory. For example: investors are idiots and they panicked. Or: investors figured that other investors were idiots and would panic, so they decided they'd better sell first. Or something like that.

Czar Wars

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 4:18 PM EDT

Here's a fight I'll be keeping an eye on once Congress returns from this week's recess. After Republican leaders hailed the elimination of four of the Obama Administration's controversial "czars" in the budget approved last week, President Obama on Friday issued a signing statement arguing that he does, in fact, retain the ability to appoint special advisers:

The President has well-established authority to supervise and oversee the executive branch, and to obtain advice in furtherance of this supervisory authority. The President also has the prerogative to obtain advice that will assist him in carrying out his constitutional responsibilities, and do so not only from executive branch officials and employees outside the White House, but also from advisers within it.
Legislative efforts that significantly impede the President's ability to exercise his supervisory and coordinating authorities or to obtain the views of the appropriate senior advisers violate the separation of powers by undermining the President's ability to exercise his constitutional responsibilities and take care that the laws be faithfully executed. Therefore, the executive branch will construe section 2262 not to abrogate these Presidential prerogatives.

The "czars" Republicans targeted included:

  • the director of the White House Office of Health Reform (health care czar)
  • the senior adviser on the auto industry (car czar)
  • senior counselor for manufacturing policy (manufacturing czar)
  • White House director of urban affairs (urban czar)

The senior advisor in the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, or "climate czar," was also a target of Republican ire. But that was already a moot point, since Obama did away with the office following Carol Browner's resignation earlier this year.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) is already accusing Obama of acting like a "dictator" in defying the czar decree. Whether Republicans will make hay of Obama's override will be worth watching.

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Video: Carolina Tea Partiers Love Trump!

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 3:06 PM EDT

Karl Rove must be horrified at what American conservatism's become. Earlier this week, the master of top-down political messaging took billionaire birther Donald Trump to task for discrediting the Republican Party with his anti-Obama claptrap and joke presidential candidacy. "This is a mistake," Rove said of the Donald's crass tack. "It will marginalize him and he's falling into Barack Obama's trap."

Or, it will make him insanely popular with the base of the base of the GOP. Witness this six minutes of jaw-dropping testimony from South Carolina tea partiers at a rally Monday, where Gov. Nikki Haley and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Nowhere Near South Carolina) spoke to the crowd. Democratic operative Tyler Jones documented the tea partiers' zeitgeist on film. "I interviewed around 25 people total and probably 75 percent of them said they were supporting Donald Trump," Jones told Slate's Dave Weigel, "and just about every single person is a birther. I took two hours of footage and chopped it down to six minutes of mind-blowing stuff."

On one level, not all that surprising. On another level...well, here's what Weigel says:

Remember those interviews with racist Democratic voters in West Virginia back in 2008? Remember the interviews outside McCain-Palin rallies -- that nice gentleman with the toy monkey who called it "little Hussein"? Yeah. Things are not better now. And there aren't any Democratic primary rallies at which conservatives can record competing videos.

Anyway, check out this video. It really has to be seen to be believed:

The Gulf Disaster One Year Later

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 2:56 PM EDT

Some of the top stories around the web on the anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon:

The Times-Picayune remembers the 11 men whose lives were lost at sea.

The Center for Public Integrity has an excellent piece today about BP's public relations work on the Gulf, focusing on one woman in particular who became the company's friendly face for community outreach. Turns out she has history of playing the public on BP's behalf.

Scientific American has a piece looking at the long-term impact for wildlife in the Gulf, concluding that there are still more questions than answers when it comes to the health of the ecosystem.

The NAACP published a report today, "My Name is 6508799," which details the economic and health impacts for Gulf coast residents, many of them minorities, in the past year.

Over at Grist, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) weighs in on what has changed in terms of drilling safety in the past year. His conclusion: Not a damn thing.

More than 3,200 oil and gas wells are still unplugged in the Gulf, threatening the same waters besieged by the 4.9-million barrel spill last year, the Associated Press reports today. The wells are still classified as "active," even though they haven't been tapped for five years and no one plans to come back to them anytime soon.

The New York Times has a nice short profile of Michael Bromwich, the guy tapped to head the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in the wake of the spill.

National Geographic looks at six things that experts got wrong about the spill.

On Tuesday, the federal government reopened the last of the Gulf waters closed to fishing during the spill.

 

Chart of the Day: Gay Marriage Goes Mainstream

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 1:57 PM EDT

Nate Silver notes that a CNN poll this week shows 51% of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. And this isn't just an outlier: "This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage." The chart below shows how much things have changed over the past couple of decades. Another few years and support for same-sex marriage will creep above 60%, approximately the number where things usually go fully mainstream. Social conservatives are plainly fighting a losing battle here.

And you know what will happen to American culture after they finally and completely lose? Pretty much nothing.

Our Big Fat Greek Time Bomb

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 1:46 PM EDT

Greece has no realistic chance of ever paying its external debt. So it needs to default restructure. But if it restructures, German and French banks are screwed. What to do?

Answer: dither some more. But dithering won't help. Greece is a time bomb waiting to go off, and it doesn't look like there's any realistic hope of defusing it.